Klemek Outdoors: Brown Creepers of the Forest

Blane Klemek

Often referred to as a discrete and nondescript forest dwelling bird, the brown creeper might very well be overlooked by most birders. Certainly difficult to see due to their cryptic plumage, brown creepers are independent and relatively quiet, ordinary wild birds deserving of a closer look.

Resembling nuthatches, brown creepers are normally found in similar forest and woodland habitats frequented by nuthatches, yet for whatever reasons the species isn’t often observed at our backyard bird feeding stations like nuthatches are. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a brown creeper at any of my feeders anywhere I’ve ever lived.

Yet I do often observe these tiny songbirds deep in the woods while on my many outdoor adventures. And I always take the time to stop, watch, and listen to these interesting, inquisitive, and fascinating little birds.

Of the many brown creeper behaviors that people notice first, is their particular style of “creeping”. Unlike all species of nuthatches that tend to inch along on limbs and trunks of trees in a descending, headfirst manner, brown creepers, on the other hand, generally crawl on trees in an ascending and spiraling, headfirst manner. Typically, they will fly from the relative heights of one tree to the base of a nearby tree to begin their meticulous and spiraling climb.

Using their special, down-curved beak, brown creepers probe and pry underneath bark, inside tiny holes and fissures, and within moss and lichen as they forage for food. Subsisting on a diet of primarily insects and insect larvae throughout the year, brown creepers are experts at locating and accessing insect hiding spots.

Widely distributed all across North America, there are few places on the continent that brown creepers don’t exist. Here in Minnesota, brown creepers are year around residents, but some birds do migrate short distances. Due in part to their adaptability and large distribution, brown creeper populations are considered stable or increasing slightly. A recent population estimate conducted by Partners in Flight has the breeding population of brown creepers at over 9 million strong.

Watching a brown creeper do what they do best is a joy. Though the diminutive birds are barely noticeable, once observed it’s hard to look away. Representing a relatively rare sight in the first place, their physical characteristics and behaviors are captivating.

Short-legged, brown creepers grip the bark of trees with their long and curved claws on each of their toes while holding their legs on either side of their bodies. And in woodpecker-like fashion, brown creepers use their relatively long and stiff tail feathers as a brace against trees while they climb in a hopping locomotion. Indeed, it’s their body-shape and manner of movement that are the reasons why brown creepers climb upwards, not downwards.

Though not known for being especially vocal, brown creepers do produce songs and calls. Male brown creepers are the only singers, but both sexes produce high-pitched calls. The song of the male consists of faint and pleasing notes that suggests the sing-song phrase, “trees, trees, beautiful trees.” Their call notes, which are so high-pitched that some people with hearing loss can’t detect, is likened to, “. . . a small chain being dropped into a heap”, according to Cornell’s All About Birds.

As would be expected about such a unique and curious bird, brown creepers aren’t cavity nesters as one might expect. Although I’ve never encountered a nesting pair or the nest of a brown creeper, they usually choose as a nesting site a spot within/behind a loose piece of bark on dead and dying trees. A stick and bark-nest is built mostly by the female while its mate either sings his territorial song close by or gathers nest material for his mate. Remarkably, the female uses natural materials such as insect cocoons to affix the nest onto the bark. Think of this trick as utilizing a natural Velcro!

While large or boisterous or colorful wild birds frequently receive most of the fanfare from we human admirers, there are many a small brown bird that go about their lives in unassuming ways that can capture our attention, too. The brown creeper is one such bird, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek